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October 16, 2010

Playoff Prospectus

LCS Day One Roundup

by Christina Kahrl

From the front seat of the car, you can see how the moonlight captures the texture of the empty rows of fall fields of Ohio, and despite that wan candle's glare, the Milky Way's easily traced with the naked eye. In the car's dark cabin, the hiss of AM radio, and... why hello, it's Suzyn Waldman.

One of the most common complaints about the state of the cinema these days is that everything's just a concept lifted from some older, better-executed concept, just zotzed up with extra graphics and maybe some swooshy sounds. And 'splosions! It's as if the Bard himself weren't guilty of such things in his day. Even so, when it comes to post-season stories, are some ruts a bit too well-worn? Because after watching Doing Twins 4: Igloo Bugaloo, one game into the ALCS you might understandably wonder if you haven't already seen this sequel as well.

That the Yankees dodged a bullet seems like an understatement—in the initial battle (or the battle between initials), C.J. Wilson was the acronym that should have spelled 'win,' but he can now join whatever support group was there for Curt Schilling after '93, a man who'd done his damnedest, only to see himself reduced to a historical footnote by failure on an epic scale.

As any of you who committed Bill James to memory back in the day remember from when he was writing about the outcome of the '85 World Series (and enjoying it more than a little, because the man's joy in fandom shone through), in crediting Whitey Herzog the benefit and hazard of his virtues in using relievers aggressively, James noted that if you use enough pitchers in a game, you're bound to run into somebody who doesn't have it.

How, then, do you evaluate Ron Washington's eighth-inning adventure? What meaning does that sort of prim, proper, and usually true statement have when you're looking at a skipper who just ran through four different relievers—three of them left-handed, coming after a left-handed starter—in the space of five batters? That seems like a selection issue, perhaps not all of it Washington's fault, except insofar as these are the guys he picked, and they're all presumably ready and rested..

Wilson had thrown 98 pitches coming into the inning, allowing six baserunners through seven. Perhaps that's not so tiring, although hooking him there would have been defensible. Courtesy of Robinson Cano's seventh-inning solo shot, the shutout was already gone, so the decision to leave him out there can certainly be taken as an endorsement, but perhaps also some gnawing concern that maybe this pen isn't really a source of strength. With Frank Francisco on the shelf, you can understand why that might be—without that one hard-throwing right-hander who can beat lefties with his splitter, what have you got left in the pen? Sure, there's Neftali Feliz—marooned in the save-generating role, and if the Rangers got the Mo memo about being unafraid to employ your closer in the eighth, they apparently didn't read it. That leaves them with situational heroes like Darren O'Day and Alexi Ogando, even Clay Rapada in his better moments, plus a few kids everybody likes, but whom nobody really seems to know what to do with right now.

The guy they need to make a difference absent Francisco is Darren Oliver, but Oliver's ability to be the set-up bridge to Feliz is more than a little in doubt. Friday night his grasp on the strike zone looked tenuous at best, missing outside with an alarming regularity that, added to his getting much more hittable down the stretch, makes you wonder if there's something wrong. Then you get into some serial straight-jacketed situational selection pedantry—with A-Rod adding one more tally toward debunking his “he's not clutch” rep at O'Day's expense, and hasn't Cano done enough damage against lefties already, and on his career?

Then, if you're Washington, you get into a tough call, about what to do with the DH slot due up in a tie game—use Ogando, only to inevitably draw Lance Berkman from the bench with nobody out and runners on first and third? Hence the decision to risk the heat-dealing Derek Holland against the right-handed Marcus Thames—defensible when you consider the alternatives, but if a river runs through it, this was one that left the Rangers all wet and crying, “no Maas!”* Thames plinked his safety to plate A-Rod, and that early-game lead was deader'n Elvis in the can.

Even then, the Rangers had their opportunities. Ian Kinsler's getting picked off after leading off the eighth with a walk off Kerry Wood was dumb or brilliant depending on who you're rooting for. Watching it later, Derek Jeter's tag was a nice touch, freezing Kinsler with a pump fake that would have caught an All-Pro cornerback flat-footed. Bunting over Mitch Moreland in the ninth after his single was sensible enough given the difficulty of getting any more than another base hit against the Grim Reaper, and Michael Young's desperate at-bat against Mariano Rivera seemed like it might have produced joy. No dice.

If there are takeaways here, it's that the Rangers need to sort out if Oliver is someone they can rely on, and do a better job of gaming out and anticipating post-season scenarios and usage patterns. The minor tragedy is that they really don't have a reliable righty to put onto the roster in his place if something is amiss—this was why Dustin Nippert was on the roster last round, and in part is why Rapada and Michael Kirkman are here this round—if you had to pick between Doug Mathis or Scott Feldman or the like, could you? Even then, asking Feliz for a two-inning save after Oliver had loaded the bases was their best play. The sooner they sort that out and recognize that you run out of tomorrows in October awfully quick, the better.

Meanwhile, the Yankees' takeaway beyond their mechanical good fortune is that CC Sabathia, in his second post-season start in a row, didn't have it, not even a little, giving up a three-run shot to Josh Hamilton before his first out. It took a desperate, lunging tag at home plate to end his first-inning agony; you can apportion equal bits of credit to the big man's athleticism and to home-plate ump Gerry Davis for seemingly spotting that Nelson Cruz's lead cleat caught in the dirt before the plate instead of striking it as Sabathia made the tag. That it happened on a high bases-load ball to the backstop in an inning that looked like it was about to get even uglier should be no less comfortable a fact for the Yankees now than for the fact that he didn't subsequently settle down. That he got away with only two more runs scored on a fourth-inning double by Young involved nearly as many happy little accidents in the third and fourth, a running tally of Ranger failure that if anything seemed to later leave them looking punched-out instead of punchless.

My takeaway as I make my way Bronxward for the Bombers' stand in the series is the nice additional feature that I was taking in a full ballgame as I used to from my earliest days of fandom: entirely on the radio. I'm not the sort of graying snob who's going to tell it's better, but I'm also not so much a future junkie to tell you it's worse either. It is simply... different, and the value judgment's meaningless if you're not operating from the same experiences.

Friday night was a reminder, as the game itself is, of simple joys of the past, whose full measure of pleasure's still there for you if you want it. On an experiential level, my flavors of childhood fandom were powered by the joy of a morning race down the gravel driveway to get the newspaper, initiating the morning ritual of printed boxscores and corn flakes, followed by a soundscape driven by baseball broadcasts: homework with the radio turned low at night, chores with the radio blaring in the barn on the weekends.

While I sometimes muse that mine is the last generation that will be raised with the game that particular way, the elements are all still there. Even as I move, however slowly, with the times, I can still catch the echoes of where my own fandom comes from. Tonight, it took the shape of picking between broadcasts in the car. Will Jon Miller and Joe Morgan keep me company as I motor on to Mount Vernon, or will it be Suzyn Waldman and John Sterling?

I elected to give the early portion of the game to Miller and Morgan, flipping halfway through to the Yankees' duo. Miller's comfortable enthusiasm for his evening task was as pleasant as ever, but my morbid curiosity about the Yankee tandem's tenor in the face of a potential second-round setback got the better of me... and gave me the opportunity to be amused by their transparent delight over the evening's turn of events. It was interesting to ponder the extent to which, dependent as you are upon the announcers, you end up having to invest a measure of trust in their accuracy. That's generally Miller's strong suit, while I know more than a few Yankee fans with their complaints about their pair, but I guess I take my instant oral history the way I do any performance art, with a measure of indulgence... and the knowledge that I can do as I did last night, looking up what I needed to see and know after the fact.

Just as L.P. Hartley observed, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there," I can take satisfaction in the pleasure of taking in the game on the air, that it remains much as it was, a different experience than being there, and one with its own pleasures just the same. But come Monday, there is where I'll be, to see unfold Yankee history, ALCS chapter three.

* At least that's what I Meused, thinking it through.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Fandom

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